Google Accessible Search rewards accessibility

Google Accessible Search is a new Google product that is under development. It is designed to prioritise search results that are more usable to blind and visually impaired people.

It works by examining the HTML markup and favouring pages that degrade gracefully, which according to Google means pages with few visual distractions and pages that are likely to render well with images turned off. Google Accessible Search also takes into account whether or not [a given page’s] primary purpose is immediately viable with keyboard navigation.

The Accessible Search FAQ also refers to the Web Content Access Guidelines, stating that Broad adherence to these guidelines is one way of ensuring that sites are universally accessible.

Imagine the boost web accessibility would get if Google would replace the normal search with this. It would immediately become even more obvious to businesses that there are customers to be found and money to be made by making sure that as many people as possible can use your website.

All is not good though. I am disappointed, but not really surprised, that Google Accessible Search itself doesn’t exactly provide a shining example of accessible or standards based web design. How about paying someone for a few hours of HTML + CSS coding to fix that, Google? The cost will be unnoticeable to you and you will set a good example.

A sidenote: anybody who thinks Google is not at all interested in web standards, think again. Joe D’Andrea has been working on some neat stuff for Google which you can read more about in Google Goes To Web Standardsville, Part One.

I’d also love to see other factors being taken into account, like proper use of headings and other semantic markup, and I would like to move emphasis from vision impairment to accessibility for all. Web accessibility being just about blind people is the biggest myth of them all, and many people have worked hard to bust that myth.

Most of all though, it would be incredible if bad, outdated, and inaccessible web development practices were heavily penalised by Google. Oh, how I would love that.

Minor criticisms aside, the fact that Google Accessible Search even exists is a great thing. Implement my suggestions and it would become a fantastic boost to best practices on the web.

Posted on July 26, 2006 in Accessibility, Search Engine Optimisation

Comments

  1. There have been several good comments on that matter on the webaim mailing list and the webaim blog

    In summary: Thanks for the effort, but it missed the mark, as it does brand accessibility a “blind people” issue.

    I am not sure about the algo either. If you look for “heavy”, Heavy.com is first, and boy how accessible this site is :-)

  2. Well I’m not sure this is a ‘great thing’ but the fact they’ve done it is certainly a good start. Incorporating an accessibility algorithm (one not just for vison impaired people) into their normal search would be a great thing.

    Interestingly a representative from Yahoo! mentioned the very idea of an accessibility-weighted search during a panel at this year’s SxSW. I guess Google beat them to it.

    As an observation, I thought it ironic that a search for ‘google’ on the normal search brings up google.com as #1 but the same term on the Accessible Search has google.com nowhere, with wikipedia.com and blogger.com coming up top.

  3. Nice article. Much more in depth than my own on the subject ;-)

    You deal an enviable blog.

  4. Thanks for bringing this up to the public.

    Just another reason to push accessibility for business.

  5. July 26, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Chris: Oh yes, it definitely should be changed from just targeting blind people. Like your comment on the WebAIM list that is a myth a lot of us have been working hard to bust. I’ll update the article to emphasise that.

    Richard: That they’re doing something is great, but you’re right that avoiding the term “vision impaired” would be much better.

    Steven: Thanks :-).

  6. It’s a pity Google didn’t see fit to publish more about the factors they are using to weight pages for the accessible search. My very limited and unscientific testing doesn’t fill me with confidence that they’ve quite nailed it yet.

  7. I’ve just posted an extremely similar article to this and draw the same conclusions.

    If these factors were combined into their main search, it might finally make companies focus on accessibility rather than the current trend of being blinded by search rankings with no regard to usability.

  8. I agree with pretty much all of the comments above in that Google is hardly winning prizes for Accessibility (or even following standards) but just them mentioning it may make more people aware. Though of course saying that the double edged sword is in reality if its not updated you get the XHTML issue again, whereby because its allowed to be served as text rather than xml it defeats its all purpose - making you have to have valid code or it wouldn’t show anything, people will say look I develop to AAA standards because ‘Google Accessibility’ says so. Oh yeah and a page is accessible as long as I can read it with a Screen reader.

  9. ps Roger, loving the “podcast”

  10. Like a few people, I posted much the same thoughts when I first saw the accessible search. I do hope they incorporate this into the standard search!

    A sidenote: anybody who thinks Google is not at all interested in web standards, think again. Joe D’Andrea has been working on some neat stuff for Google

    I’m not sure how that article shows any form of commitment on Google’s side of the fence. Sure, they’ve incorporated an unsolicited, open-source addition to their code base… but Joe gets the points, not Google.

    Plus, it’s just one addon to one product in Google’s product line. It hardly shows a genuine commitment to moving to standards.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt some people at Google are fighting the standards fight; but as an organisation Google does not display any tangible commitment to standards. We can only judge Google on what they themselves produce, which so far isn’t standards compliance. Here’s hoping they’ll join the party in future, of course :)

  11. Quick addendum: I’m assuming that Joe’s bio is up to date and he hasn’t actually been employed by Google :)

  12. July 27, 2006 by Simon

    Etre has coined a new term “accessoogle” in honour of Google Accessible Search - see the definition here

  13. Let’s not forget that this new idea is still only a Labs project. There may be issues with the implementation, but it is only a week old! I am sure that there are many people busy behind the scenes, tuning a piece of internet history that could banish unaccessible websites into the “also-ran” pile.
    While Google tests and reconfigures we should be trying to convince them or the necessity to incorporate accessibility into the main search for the benefit of everyone.
    Congratulations and good luck to Google, may Accessible Search prosper and help out millions.

  14. Ben - greetings! My bio is more or less current and you’re correct, I’m not employed by Google at this time. (Recently self-employed.)

  15. “It would be incredible if bad, outdated, and inaccessible web development practices were heavily penalised by Google. Oh, how I would love that.”

    I wouldn’t. In fact I’d be off to Yahoo before you could say “pagerank”. The job of a search engine is to find information, not to assess it in some geeky beauty contest.

    Results need to be ranked according to how closely their content matches our seach term. I don’t want a page that is less relevant, but better marked up, pushed up the order.

  16. August 5, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Chris: You do have a point. I was thinking purely from a modern web professional’s point of view.

  17. Google appears to be adjusting it’s algorithms accordingly.

    If you Google “css” in the regular search, you get “Results 1 - 10 of about 838,000,000 for css”. Google “css” in Accessible Search and you get “Results 1 - 10 of about 74,600,000 for css”. In the search optimization world, no one has uncovered which data center(s) Google is using for Accessible Search.

    If you do a one-to-one comparison of the results, they are different. Some sites from the regular Google search results went higher; some lower; some disappared. Google has readjusted it’s domain main history algorithm.

    If you look at the regular search results, Every use of “css” is included. Accessible Search returns mostly tutorials.

    My favorite example of the new algorithms is the W3C (since I have issues with them at the moment). “W3C -Cascading Style Sheets” is first in regular search but that page has disappeared completely from Accessible Search. Interesting irony.

    My guess. Google is using Accessible Search for tweaking it’s algorithms and those tweak results may become part of the regular search parameters.

    And, if you want to have more fun, try http://www.google.com/u/accessible for different results.

  18. Chris: Results need to be ranked according to how closely their content matches our seach term. I don’t want a page that is less relevant, but better marked up, pushed up the order.

    Good point, I tend to agree. One sollution could be to alter the name of the new search, make it a filter instead. This would not favour or push anybodys site, rather ignore badly made sites.

  19. Dan Champion:

    It’s a pity Google didn’t see fit to publish more about the factors they are using to weight pages for the accessible search. My very limited and unscientific testing doesn’t fill me with confidence that they’ve quite nailed it yet.

    I wonder if it learns by comparing new sites with sites that have been manually classified as accessible? Something like the Bayesian techniques used in spam filters.

    The C.V. of the bloke behind it is certainly impressive and a positive sign that they know what they’re doing about accessibility.

    What would be interesting would be to see how sites that have been classified as accessible by disabled people stack up against the WCAG guidelines.

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